The Houston Rockets are in the same place as the Boston Celtics after winning Game 4 at home, 105-103, on Monday night. They successfully faced down a possible sweep at the hands of the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder, and set themselves up to play spoiler during Game 5 tonight in Oklahoma City’s raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena. They might be able to survive and put the pressure back on Oklahoma City if they continue to deny Kevin Durant the ball, which is a lot easier to do now that Westbrook is out with a lateral meniscus tear.
Durant is the second-best player in the league, with only LeBron James his better. After dropping 41 points (13-for-30 shooting) on the Rockets in the Thunder’s Game 3 win in Houston, and 38 points (12-for-16 shooting) in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss, it’s obvious he’s been up to carrying more of the offensive load now that Westbrook is out for the rest of the postseason. He’s always been capable of picking up the offensive slack left in Russell’s unfortunate absence, which is why many have previously questioned Westbrook’s shot selection. But Durant runs into a problem now that good defensive teams — so, not the Rockets — can load up on the strong side of the floor and limit Durant’s quality touches.
Since Durant has become a bit more well-rounded this season, spending more time facilitating the offense, you’d think he’d be up to the challenge of leading the Thunder offense. But the best way to cause trouble for Scott Brooks‘ team is to let Durant handle the ball at the top of the key. He’s uncomfortable in traffic, and can get slogged down when a bigger body is muscling him out of his comfort zone.
Usually, Durant and his 7-5 wingspan needs just the smallest of openings to get a quality shot, but when better defenders than Chandler Parsons are bodying him 20 feet out (and Parsons was great in Game 4), they’re almost daring other Thunder players to beat them, and Durant’s svelte body doesn’t possess the requisite girth needed to punish those defenders who push him further and further out of the high post.
It’s somewhat similar to Dirk Nowitzki before his title run in 2011. The Dallas offense ran through him on the high post, where he could see over the top of the defense and spot oncoming double-teams before either skipping passing to the open man or shooting over his defender. LeBron does this now, too, from the high block, and Gasol does it on occasion for the Grizzlies. But Dirk was initially too weak to keep that position in the playoffs, since defenses were hellbent on getting him — and so his Dallas team — out of their comfort zone. The same strategy applies to the Thunder, who don’t have Westbrook to run the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop options with Durant that were the fallback positions when a set play fell apart.
Durant’s long, willowy body-type makes it difficult for him to hold defenders at bay when Oklahoma City tries to get him the ball, particularly late in games. This was most apparent in the Rockets’ Game 4 win, particularly late when Houston’s defense tightened, and Oklahoma City wasn’t able to run their preferred plays. But Durant struggled early too (discounting his highly-efficient shooting), when he was pushed out on the perimeter and didn’t have enough room to maneuver.
Like these two turnovers in the first half:
Above, Durant doesn’t see Harden cheating off DeAndre Liggins in the far corner, and when Durant tries to find him, Harden easily intercepts the skip pass.
Then there’s the above first half sequence, where Ibaka sets a screen for Durant beyond the arc, and Omer Asik jumps out so Durant can’t turn the corner. Asik prevents the penetration and the pass to Ibaka before getting back down to cover Serge. At this point, there’s under 10 seconds left on the shot clock, and Oklahoma City’s offense is stagnant. Durant drives into the teeth of the Houston defense, where just about everyone is waiting in the paint.
The whole Houston team collapses, with all five Houston defenders in the lane. Durant turns the ball over before he can find any of his open Thunder teammates.
More of the same happened in the second half, including the final, decisive play that prevented an Oklahoma City sweep. The name of the game is getting the ball out of Durant’s hands before he can hurt you. No one else on the Thunder scares anyone enough to limit Houston’s ability to overload their defense towards Durant.